THE MARIAH NETWORK

Making It Happen

Mariah Carey has won Grammys and sold millions of albums — but never toured. Now she's on the road — she visits the Spectrum tonight — and wishing she'd taken her mother's advice.

She should have taken the piano lessons.

The instant Mariah Carey makes her confession, it seems outrageously silly. She's got one of the most-recognized voices in pop music. Her records sell in incredible numbers. She's won two Grammys. She's got dogs and horses and the keys to a Range Rover currently parked outside Hillsdale House, a restaurant near the Upstate New York farmhouse where she and her husband, Sony Music Entertainment president Tommy Mottola, escape Manhattan.

But as she talks about her songwriting process, the Irish-Venezuelan pop diva with the long, wavy hair presents a convincing case for more formal training.

"My problem is I'm lazy," confesses Carey, 23, who will make her Philadelphia debut at the Spectrum tonight, in a show for which few tickets remain.

"When I was little, my mom tried to get me to do piano, but I said, 'This comes naturally, I can do it by ear. I don't want to learn.'"

Now Carey knows: Her mother, a former singer with the New York City Opera, was right. "I should have taken lessons because it would be easier for me now... Sometimes ideas just come, and because I'm worrying about trying to find the chords, I end up losing the idea."

Retaining her ideas is especially important now, she says firmly, because she's determined to exert more control over her work. In the past, decisions were made for Carey, and she's paid dearly in critical venom. The singer makes her own moves now. Carey wrote or co-wrote most of the tunes on her new album Music Box; she also co-produced the project, which contains her seventh number-one single, the irrepressibly bubbly "Dreamlover."

Mariah Carey is a transformation in progress: She knows what she doesn't know, and believes that the technical stuff — the piano training, the fine points of mixing — will come. What makes her so sure is the same confidence that allows her to speak candidly about her short-comings and areas ripe for improvement.

In high school, working with writing partner Ben Marguiles, Carey wasn't exactly encouraged to express her opinion.

"I knew what I wanted to do, and Ben would get, like, 'ha, ha, ha,' " says Carey, summoning up a mocking laugh. "But he would end up agreeing with me. I didn't know that I was producing, but I was producing — suggesting that the piano part be more like this, changing the sound of the synthesizer. I thought he was producing because he was the man.

"I didn't get credit — even on my first album, [in which] some of the songs were exactly the same productions I did on my demos, and these big producers would come in and just tweak a few things."

"Mariah Carey, producer" is a concept that doesn't square with the image many have of her. She's a dancepop-droid, the critics write — a puppet whose music is less impressive than the elaborate calibrations of the Sony Music marketing department. Especially galling, some say, is the way this Long Island teenager waltzed from coat-check girl into the big time without paying her dues. In fact, her current arena tour represents her first live performances since becoming a major artist.

OK, Carey scuffled for only a year in Manhattan before her vocal personality and ability to hit those stratospheric high notes came to the attention of Mottola and other record-company bigwigs. But since that break, she hasn't been the idle, preening pop idol: She's seized the opportunity to learn about record-making.

She owes a lot to that traffic-stopping black mini-dress, the one she wears on the cover of her 1990 debut album. But Carey, who is more photogenic than she is beautiful, says she's comfortable with that, too: "Everything I do is because I want to do it. I wasn't trying to use my body as a smoke screen."

Unlike Whitney Houston, to whom she's often compared, Carey has rolled up her sleeves and become involved in every aspect of music-making, from writing songs to selecting the music played before her shows.

"It would be great to just walk in the studio, sing and leave," says Carey, whose black spandex pants, knit top and construction-worker boots are a study in upstate casual.

"I'm sure that's much easier than what I do. I think a lot about all kinds of little stuff that maybe other people don't care about. Like what the audience will hear before I get on stage."

The avowed "radio addict" roots through her purse for a cassette of '80s dance music and Sugarhill Gang-era rap she assembled for playing over the P.A. system before she starts her show. "It's mostly male — guys and groups," she says. "I didn't want any females on there."

The first test of Carey's artistic will came during the two-year grooming process that led to her eponymous debut album.

"There was a song I hated that they [the executives at Sony-owned Columbia Records] loved. They thought it was a hit, and they didn't think 'Vision of Love' was a hit at all. They knew it was a good song, but it was risky, a ballad."

The Columbia brass argued that their selection was more appropriate because it sounded "young," Carey said. "I said, 'It's not young, it's stupid.' It was a cheesy little uptempo ditty I hated so much. I really stood my ground, and they didn't make me put it on the album. Lucky for me everything worked out, because if it hadn't, they would have said, 'We told you this was the hit.'"

There have been many tests since then. Despite her massive, and seemingly overnight, success (she's sold 22 million albums worldwide), Carey sees her career as a slow building process. She doesn't aspire to act or move into another field; she wants to get better at making records first.

In pursuit of that goal, she often relies on longtime songwriting partner and keyboard player Walter Afanasieff, who, as a producer, has helped Carey realize her songs.

"We have this connection where I'll sing what I'm hearing and he'll start playing, and usually it's what I'm hearing in my head," Carey explains. "Walter really tries to let me lead. He knows it's important to me to let the melodies I have develop."

She points to the choir-like background vocals and overt gospel touches that grace "Make It Happen" and other Music Box selections as proof that the duo is evolving: Such elements would never have surfaced on her made-by-committee debut.

Though Carey is convinced the material is getting stronger, she admits she's still nervous about performing. Even with as many as five days between shows, this tour has been a major hurdle. Opening night in Miami met with negative reviews. Rather than stew, Carey says she channeled her anger into her next performance, and that Boston show brought positive critical response.

No matter how hard she tries to be the pop-star-next-door, Carey knows there will be people who look at her marriage and see an artist who is uniquely well-situated. For those cynics, she has a simple answer:

"You can't make something that's not a real hit a hit. I don't care who's behind you, I don't care who you're married to, I don't care if you have all the money in the world. Nobody can make a person go into the store and buy a single or an album. If they could, there are a lot of rich men out there who would make their wives pop stars."

Carey's lavish June wedding to Mottola, who is 20 years her senior, unleashed a new backlash, not just from critics but from fellow artists. And, frankly, Carey is getting a little tired of answering to other people. "First, I have to deal with people thinking whatever they think about me — that I'm somehow getting special treatment.

"Then I have to deal with the reality of the company, where everybody's bending over backwards to make sure to not do anything special for me. You think they don't hear [complaints] from other artists and managers? They go over every detail. The company is so paranoid about doing anything for me, I'm lucky if I get my royalty checks half the time."

Talking with Carey, it's clear that those now-sizable checks are not the motivating force in her life. She knows she lives a fairy-tale life — among her prized possessions is a two-year-old answering-machine tape of one of her all-time favorite artists, Stevie Wonder, singing "Happy Birthday" to her — but she's focused on the future.

And that means concentrating on her music. She mentions "Vanishing" from her first album, a song she considers one of her best. During her current show, this delicate song, when it works, is Carey's internal affirmation, the sure sign that she's on track.

"The singers on stage with me are the best in the world, in my opinion," Carey says. "It's almost intimidating to sing with them around.

"Sometimes they'll look at me on that song and give me, like, a 'Go, girl,' because they know I'm singing from my heart. When they're feeling it, I know I did my job, I got it across. It's almost like church."